updated 02:05 pm EDT, Mon October 22, 2007
Wireless carrier critic
Lashing out at the wireless carrier cadre, Walt Mossberg says that the United States federal government has been duped into allowing AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others to lock consumers into terms unprecedented by any other industry. Mossberg makes an analogy to the desktop computer market: you don't need the permission of your ISP to replace a Dell PC with a Sony PC, for instance. You don't need to pay a fee to switch your Web browser or switch to a new music download service. But these overbearing rules due apply to the wireless industry, a state of affairs Mossberg says "limits consumer choice, stifles innovation, crushes entrepreneurship, and has made the U.S. the laughingstock of the mobile-technology world, just as the cellphone is morphing into a powerful hand-held computer."
Calling them "Soviet ministries," Mossberg says that wireless carriers are detrimental to innovation in the way that they dictate what services can be used on specific phones. He says the iPhone is slightly different in this regard, in that Apple was permitted to develop a mobile device without AT&T or any other carrier having a say in the hardware and software design of the product. He says the exception was only made because "Apple is currently the hottest digital brand on earth, with its own multibillion-dollar online and physical retail network."
However, Apple has also had to implement measures like disallowing third-party programs on the phone (until February, when an iPhone SDK will be introduced) and engaging in a multi-year lock to AT&T. Mossberg says the limit on third-party applications is especially problematic for small independent developers. He writes: "I have met with multiple small companies that had trouble getting their programs onto consumers' phones without the permission of the carriers; getting that permission often requires paying the carriers. "
The problem lies in two areas: the US government did not set up a wireless standard when it needed to a few years ago, so there are two competing networks: CDMA and GSM. This means that switching to a new provider often requires a new, compatible phone. Second, the government allows the GSM carriers to 'lock' their phones, "so a SIM card from a rival carrier won't work in them, at least for a period of time."
Mossberg argues that lifting these restrictions and standardizing the network would result in cheaper, unsubsidized phones and the elimination of draconian contract cancellation fees.
Hackers have worked to unlock the iPhone from its AT&T shackles on firmware revisions up to and including 1.1.1, while "jailbreak" solutions have allowed independent developers to put natie applications on the device for some time. Meanwhile, Apple and AT&T have together faced a number of suits over the iPhone's terms of service, including $600 million class-action litigation, which claims the two firms illegally agreed to prevent owners of the cellular device from using programs or services that do not generate revenues for the two firms